Monday, August 26, 2013

Heath Holland On...3-D!

This week’s column was made possible by: a conversation I had with my wife on the couch, a generous contribution from Dramamine, and readers like you! Heath Holland On…was written before a live studio audience.

Two things happened recently that led to this column. First, I read an interview that director (and self-proclaimed King of the World) James Cameron gave to the BBC in which he stated that in the future all entertainment will be 3D. He went on to say that we see the world in 3D, so that is how we will want to see our entertainment. Interestingly enough, just a few weeks ago he also said that many of the movies that are coming out in 3D don’t actually need to be in 3D. Try to figure that one out.

The other thing happened when I sat down to view the 1953 John Wayne movie Hondo. The Blu-ray began with an introduction by Leonard Maltin explaining that Hondo was shot in 3D because of the appeal of the format in the early '50s. Maltin discusses how 3D was already fading in popularity by the time the movie was released in November of that year and there was (and still is) controversy as to whether or not to make it a nationwide 3D release. Some people are still saying that it only showed in 3D on a few screens, while others say that it was shown in 3D everywhere. The only thing those two camps agree on is that 3D had declined in popularity relatively quickly.

So here we have a movie that, in 1953, was at the tail-end of the 3D movement, but we also have James Cameron today talking about how 3D is the format of the future. As it turns out, people have been claiming that for sixty years, yet 3D has largely been considered a novelty, fad, and gimmick. Despite the prophecies of the future, we find ourselves once again at what seems to be the end of a 3D cycle.
It seems like this current wave of 3D popularity started about 10 years ago. Robert Rodriguez had experimented with the format with a couple of his children’s movies and it was also being used for certain IMAX documentaries, but things didn’t really kick off until the Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express, which made most of its gigantic box-office profit from IMAX 3D screenings. What followed was a glut of animated films and family fare being produced or converted into 3D. Eventually, a predominant portion of each week’s new theatrical releases would end up being shown in 3D.

But here we are a decade and hundreds of 3D movies later, and it appears as if the format has worn out its welcome in America and is losing appeal once more. Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University had the two lowest 3D-to-2D profits of all time.

So how did we get here? How did 3D go from being the savior of the movie industry to being such an insignificant (yet expensive) contributor to the current box office? And why does James Cameron still think that 3D is the future?

I’ve seen a modest amount of movies in 3D; at best, I’ve found it to be immersive and complimentary, and at worst I’ve found it to be distracting and headache-inducing. Honestly, it still seems like a fad to me, predominantly being used to make mediocre movies play for a wider audience.

James Cameron is right when he says that we see movies in 3D, but that doesn’t mean that it’s how I want my entertainment. I don’t want to have those annoying special glasses or see a darkened picture when I go to the movies, and let’s face it, the experience of 3D is fleeting. I don’t remember things like depth of field when I think back on my favorite scene in a film. I remember the story (hopefully) and the overall experience.

In fact, the magic of filmmaking is that you’re creating a false reality that feels like a real one. This is why we get lost in movies in the first place. If a movie has done its job, it will feel real to me. The day or week after I’ve seen a movie, I don’t remember things like special effects (unless they’re bad) and I sure don’t remember that a tree in a 3D movie stuck out a little bit more than it did in a 2D movie. I remember characters and situations and problems that I can relate to or that transported me.
I don’t want to come across as being anti-3D, because I’m not. If I could go back in time and see The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3D, I have a feeling that would be the experience of a lifetime. I imagine being there at that moment in time when technology was opening up the possibilities of the future and the world was changing in ways that seemed so unbelievable. It sounds so exciting. It sounds FUN. Innocent and disposable, but definitely FUN.

But it seems like audiences in the '50s discovered what we’re discovering again now: 3D is a neat idea and it’s great for making monsters pop out or scares more intense, but it doesn’t do a lot for the movie itself. And after the theatrical run, you’ll probably never replicate the experience of seeing that movie in 3D again. 3D televisions are expensive and hard to find. 3D is a luxury, and most people aren’t willing to pay for that luxury anymore.

Part of the reason that 3D sales are down is because more and more movies are using it as a crutch to increase ticket sales. Take GI Joe: Retaliation, for example. I’m on record as being a big fan of the movie in spite of its faults (I think it’s a movie only a kid or a hard-core GI Joe comic fan can appreciate, as evidenced by the reviews), but the movie is pretty thin. Paramount knew it was thin, too, because they delayed the release of the movie from May of 2012 to almost a year later in March of 2013. The reason given for this was that the film was going to be converted to 3D to increase international markets.

Outside America, 3D is still making loads and loads of cash. Internationally, this franchise that takes a fantastical, super-hero look at the US military made twice what it made in America. That’s crazy, right? So Paramount’s strategy totally worked and GI Joe: Retaliation made $371 million worldwide. They knew exactly what they were doing.
Look, I’ll be honest. I think that what Paramount did made good business sense. What would have made BETTER business sense to me would be to make a movie that everyone wanted to go see ANYWAY, whether it was in 3D or not. Don’t use 3D as a crutch to get people to go see your movie,; use good writing, directing, and storytelling to do that. Clearly I have this all figured out. Paramount, I’m available for consultation. In fact, I’m offering my services to ALL major studios. That Hollywood Heath Holland…what a guy!

So wrapping up, let’s revisit James Cameron’s statement about 3D as the future. Hey, let’s also revisit his statement from a few weeks ago about how some of this summer’s movies didn’t need to be in 3D. What does he mean by that? Well, he has specifically named Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel as examples of movies that were unnecessarily converted to 3D. He’s also on record as saying movies that use 3D for a cheap thrill, like Pirhana 3D, aren’t doing it right either. Keep in mind, this comes from the director of Pirhana II: The Spawning. Cameron says these movies that use 3D as a fun gimmick remind him of Friday the 13th 3D. He means that as a bad thing for some reason.

I believe what James Cameron was TRYING to say is that a lot of movies are being made that aren’t utilizing the technology properly and are being used as gimmicks, but given the man’s background I have a hard time taking these statements as anything other than him declaring himself the Messiah of 3D Entertainment. HE is the one who really knows how to use 3D. To be clear, his idea of this future of 3D seems to be lots and lots of Avatar sequels.
I have no idea what the future holds for 3D or for the direction that movies will eventually end up going, but I do hope that this decline in ticket sales (both from 3D and 2D ticket sales) leads to the studios examining what brought people to the movies in the first place and to a return to a more pure movie experience. All the bells and whistles like surround sound and 3D can be nice enhancements for great movies, but without a great movie at the heart of the experience, it’s all just smoke and mirrors to me.

*Note* If you really want to have a good time, re-read this column and take a drink every time you see “3D.” Then go see something in 3D, but don’t put on the glasses. Fun fact: when you’ve been knocking ‘em back, the blurry screen isn’t blurry anymore.


  1. So, we need to hope for China and Russia to get tired of 3D before it really goes away.

    1. It's like the Cold War all over again. I think Stallone should declare war on 3D in the next Rambo movie. He can go to China and Russia and shoot up all the projectors like he shoots up the Murdock's office at the end of Rambo: First Blood Part II. I want to see this.

    2. Just realized I called him "the Murdock." I'm gonna pretend I meant to do that.

    3. But if the Murdock is there, then that means we get B.A. You crazy fool.

    4. Wait, are you B.A.? Can I be Hannibal? I love it when plan comes 3D? I don't think I can be Hannibal after all. I'd rather be the van.

  2. I don’t give much thought to 3D these days. I’m fine with the format and don’t have to pay an upcharge so I don’t bother determining whether a screening will be 2D or 3D before arriving at the cinema.

    The only time the 3D format ever played a deciding factor in me seeing a film was for Hugo. I’d read reviews that suggested it was the best use of 3D since Avatar. When I arrived at the cinema to find it only playing in 2D, I decided to see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol instead. During Oscar season, Hugo was re-released in 3D so I got a chance to see it as intended and was underwhelmed by its use.

    The only time that I’ve been impressed with the use of 3D since Avatar is the snippet of footage from Lawrence of Arabia that was converted for Prometheus.

  3. Here in the dark, strange Netherlands we don't even get an option anymore. All 3D movies play only in 3D and it sucks.
    How's that going in the US? Do you always get the option to see movies in 2D?

    1. The multiplex that I go to most often almost always offers a choice, unless it's an IMAX presentation (which is always 3-D, with a few exceptions). That sucks that you're basically forced into the 3-D versions, especially if there is an upcharge. Time to move to Chicago.

    2. Yep, same for me as for Patrick.

    3. I think we should ALL move to Chicago.

    4. Quick note I am moving to Chicago (Music Box Massacre here I come!) and when it comes to the 3D I have been avoiding it when I can on regular screens and only seeking it out on IMAX when I know the movie isn't being filmed by a shakycam heavy director (name your poison). I think 3d is here to stay but the amount of movies that do it will slowly start to dwindle, it would disappear quicker but thanks to tech upgrades in the last few years it seems to be getting cheaper to convert movies while keeping the extra surcharge.

      Personally I want there to be a special 4D version for the next Transformers movie with Mark Wahlberg live in front of me doing all the lines right in front of me with the toy versions of Bumblebee, Optimus Prime and the other robots but I don't think I can afford that upcharge

  4. Great read HHH.
    I always choose 2D versions when I go to the movies because the gimmick wore off shortly before the end of Avatar and I fail to see it adding anything of worth to any movie. Also, despite being Super Cool and nearly always high on cocaine I don't like wearing sunglasses indoors.

    I think it will take a few years of the downward trend you mention before we see the end of 3D, but the sooner it comes the sooner they can start putting that money into something else, like extra script work (unlikely but I can hope).

  5. I love me some 3D movies... but only in the right conditions: the steroscopy must be well-done, I've got to be smack-dab in the middle of the theater (which is always true, but particularly so in this case), the story should ideally involve an element of exploration that complements the third dimension (Avatar, Prometheus, The Hobbit), and the wow factor should be enough to justify the surcharge. In other words, I'd love to see something like Before Midnight in 3D, I think, but I wouldn't opt to pay extra for it anytime soon. Now that 3D-capable projectors are just about everywhere, I think it's in everyone's best interest to cool off on it a bit, and save it for such special occasions as a Cameron or Jackson spectacular.

    Anyhow, I just this weekend heard of a new gadget called the Oculus Rift. It's basically a 3D headset, primary gaming-oriented, but it can also simulate large-screen cinemas, and there's no reason why it couldn't display 3D movies, also. It's brand-new tech, with plenty of room for improvement, and I haven't tried it for myself, but if it does work, it just might be a cool way to watch 2D or 3D stuff. And yes, I know, it wouldn't be the authentic cinema experience, but for those without a local Music Box or a Castro Theatre to attend...

    In the meantime, I say bring back Viewmaster reels!

    1. Well, I guess it's just me and you El Gaith!

      I love it too - I wouldn't have said it actually adds anything to the movie itself, but your point about elements of exploration is a good one, as it perhaps does add a little bit in that regard. I mean, I didn't particularly like Prometheus but I do like watching it in 3D - for me it makes the eye candy that much sweeter. Not to say I couldn't live without it - I realize it's more gimmick than substance - but I hope it doesn't go away entirely (and I don't think it will).

      And if the Oculus Rift is as badass as it sounds, I'll take one!